As Christmas approaches, I’m going to recommend T.H.White’s `The Sword in the Stone’ which contains one of my favourite Christmas scenes. Confusingly, there are two versions of this story. The first was published as a stand-alone novel in 1938. The second forms part of White’s famous novel about Arthur – `The Once and Future King’.  White was an insecure author who often had second thoughts about his work. I usually prefer his first thoughts. The version of `The Sword in the Stone’  within `The Once and Future King’  is shorter, less playful and more sombre, so I’d go for the original novel. There’s a recent Essential Modern Classics edition, with an introduction by Garth Nix, which you can get in paperback or on Kindle. Beware of simplified story-books based on the 1963 Disney film of `The Sword in the Stone’. The film itself  has some very amusing scenes but it doesn’t do justice to the novel. No film could because White’s distinctive style of writing is one of the main pleasures of `The Sword in the Stone’.

In order to enjoy this book you need to forget anything you may know about Arthur and Merlyn as historical figures in Dark Age Britain. Have you done that? Good. `The Sword in the Stone’ is full of what Merlyn himself calls `beastly anachronisms’.  It celebrates centuries of Arthurian legend, the full range of medieval culture, traditional English country life and a lot more besides. At this point in my blogs I usually summarize the plot of the book I’m recommending but `The Sword in the Stone’ doesn’t so much have a plot as a situation.  A framing story leads into a series of episodes in the remarkable education of a future king.

In a castle on the edge of the Forest Sauvage, lives Sir Ector, his young son, Kay, and a foundling Art, who is usually known as the Wart.  Kay is a proud and nervous boy, who never lets the Wart forget that they aren’t really brothers,  but Ector is a much kindlier man in the novel than he is in the film version. When the boys lose a precious hawk, the Wart chases the lost bird deep into the forest. There he is shot at, meets a knight called King Pellinore who has been hunting the dreadful Questing Beast for seventeen years, and finally comes to the hidden cottage of the wizard Merlyn and his  talking owl, Archimedes. Merlyn can see the future because `I unfortunately was born at the wrong end of time, and I have to live backwards from in front, while surrounded by a lot of people living forwards from behind.’ After producing references signed by Aristotle, the goddess Hecate and the Master of Trinity College, Merlyn is appointed as the boys’ new tutor. During their first lesson, Merlyn summons Neptune to turn the Wart into a fish and then takes him to visit the ferocious pike who is the king of the castle moat. The Wart only just escapes this monster and many of his other lessons are equally strange and perilous. In the course of his education, the Wart has adventures with Robin Wood, tries being a hawk, an owl, and a snake, and encounters a child-eating witch, a rather small giant, and the goddess of wisdom. After some years, Kay becomes a knight but the Wart is only his squire. Then Pellinore brings news that the next king will be the person who can draw a magical sword out of stone…

White seems to have had a head stuffed with peculiar facts, so if you have ever wondered exactly how a an owl grooms himself or what a raw mouse might taste like, he is the author to tell you. The Wart’s adventures in various animal and bird forms are surprisingly convincing because White knew so much about nature and had such respect for the animal kingdom. `The Sword in the Stone’ is also packed with delightfully eccentric characters, such as the melancholy King Pellinore `Always mollocking about after that beastly Beast’ while longing for a cosy home; keen sportsman and stickler for the rules of jousting, Sir Grummore Grummursum, sharp-tongued fearless Maid Marian, whom the Wart likens to a golden vixen, doleful scholarly owl, Archimedes, and `a most uncommon’ singing hedgehog. Above all there is Merlyn, with his zodiac-embroidered gown streaked with bird-droppings, his long white beard which he’s prone to chew in moments of exasperation, and his `faintly worried expression, as though he were trying to remember some name which began with Chol but which was pronounced in quite a different way’.  If I was running a `my favourite wizard’ competition it would be White’s Merlyn versus Tolkien’s Gandalf in the final.

Merlyn is a wonderful comic character. The outrageous magical duel in which Merlyn defeats a witch by transforming himself into a series of nasty microbes was the highlight of the Disney film. Yet there is a serious side to Merlyn and to `The Sword in the Stone’.  Pacifist White wrote this book at a dark time of rising dictators when world war seemed inevitable. In the novel, the Wart longs to be a knight and fight battles but Merlyn tries to show him the absurdity of  most human conflicts and wants him to learn from animals who only kill to survive. In his very first lesson, the Wart is exposed to the tyrannical King of the Moat who has a face `which had been ravaged by all the passions of an absolute monarch,  by cruelty, sorrow, age, pride, selfishness…’ Merlyn wants his gentle pupil to grow up to be a very different kind of monarch, one who puts Right before Might.

White has a rare ability to be funny and heartbreaking in the same story. Sometimes even in the same sentence. This book is full of poignant moments because most readers will know that the Wart has many sorrows and betrayals  to face in the life ahead of him. Yet there are also episodes of pure delight, such as the description of Christmas at Castle Sauvage when the snow hangs `heavily on the battlements, like extremely thick icing on a very good cake’  because `this was in the old Merry England, when the rosy Barons ate with their fingers, and had peacocks served before them with their tail feathers streaming…..and the unicorns in the wintery moonlight stamped with their silvery feet and snorted their noble breaths of blue upon the frozen air.’  Merry Christmas to all my fellow Fantasy readers and I’ll be back in two weeks time.